After a year filled with the highest murder count in the last 20 years, one month into 2021, the murder rate continues to raise concerns, with more homicides reported than this time last year.
At the end of January, the Austin Police Department reported five murders, one more than in January 2020 and three more than in January 2019.
Lt. Jeff Greenwalt, with APD's homicide and aggravated assault unit, said this is the highest murder rate Austin has seen since the mid-1990s, but cautioned that it's still too early to tell what the rest of the year holds.
"If you wanted to look at just one month then we're ahead but we don't try to draw long-term predictions out of just a little bounce of data," Greenwalt said. "We could potentially start fast and even out the same or less, we don't know."
The murder rate has varied over the last few years but has been on an upward trend since 2017. After a spike year of 40 murders in 2016, 2017 saw 25, followed by 34 in 2018, 36 in 2019 and 48 in 2020.
In the 1990s, APD sent out a task force to proactively monitor groups that were likely to commit violent crimes that could end in murder. Despite the 90s having the highest murder rate to date, the task force at the time kept the murder rate much lower than it could have been, Greenwalt said.
Today, murders tend to come from the same types of groups: gangs and drug rings mostly, Greenwalt explained. But with limited resources—due to recent budget cuts and a spike in resignations after the mass protests last summer—the same kind of task force is no longer an option.
Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the APD budget by approximately $20 million—or about 5%—including eliminating funding for three planned police cadet classes. Greenwalt said the effects of defunding the police may become apparent in 2021.
"In 2021, police officers and police departments need the support to augment patrol and to work on violent groups of people in violent situations," Greenwalt said. "If we don't have those resources, then those situations get out of control and bad things happen, and we just don't have that as much as we have in the past. We need the officers to feel supported. We need to know that our district attorney's office is going to support the charges that we put through."
Because murders tend to be committed by people already in the criminal justice system, Greenwalt said the real problem is recidivism, or the tendency for a convicted criminal to reoffend. Greenwalt said they see the same names over and over. In one case APD arrested the same man five times in one year for violent felonies because he had able to bond out of jail.
Sasha Skare, who has an arrest warrant out for a murder that occurred in San Antonio last week, had been released on a personal recognizance bond from Austin before she committed the crime. Sometimes suspected murderers are even wearing an ankle monitor when they're arrested by police, such as in the case of Adelaido Bernabe Urias, an ice cream man who was murdered last year, Greenwalt said.
"There's a lot of really violent people who are slipping through the cracks," Greenwalt said. "These are not one-off scenarios, there's dozens and dozens of examples of people getting off on a PR bond all in the name of criminal justice reform or bail reform."
Despite the current uptick in homicides, Greenwalt said Austin is still a safe city when compared to other metros. A report released last month by the FBI showed Austin consistently fell around the middle of the deck for crime among 21 similarly-sized cities.
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